Levon Helm: 1940-2012

The Band's drummer dies of cancer at 71.

Levon Helm, the musician and, latterly, actor, best known as the drummer of The Band, has died of cancer in New York. He was 71. Helm was the only American in a band of Canadians obsessed with the mythology of the American South. He was born and raised in Marvell, Arkansas, a small town in the Mississipi delta.

Helm grew up around musicians (his father, a sharecropper, was a weekend guitarist) and in high school, he formed his first band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. As a teenager he entered the orbit of the R&B artist Ronnie Hawkins (himself Arkansas-born, though he made his name playing the club circuit north of the border in Ontario). Helm joined Hawkins's backing band, The Hawks, in 1958. It was here that he met the musicians with whom he'd eventually form The Band: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko.

The Hawks split from Hawkins in the early Sixties and toured for a while as "Levon and the Hawks". Hawkins recognised that his talented young charges "wanted to play heavier music than that barroom stuff". Things got even heavier when Helm and Robertson were recruited by Bob Dylan to play some live shows after his "electric" heresy at the Newport Festival in July 1965. Dylan eventually recruited the other three Hawks and the outfit set out on tour. They made a noise of a kind that had not been heard before. The writer Greil Marcus called them, "without exception or qualifications" the greatest rock 'n' roll band he'd ever seen. "If you weren't there," he wrote, "it will be difficult to convey the visual power of their performance", or the "stately, extravagant, and visionary" sound they created.

Marcus's view wasn't widely held, however, and Helm, in particular, soon tired of the ritual execration of folk purists that the Dylan and his band had to endure each night. Helm quit the Hawks in November 1965, saying: "For the first time, I couldn't stick to my policy, which was to whistle while I worked." The drummer was reunited with the group now known as The Band in October 1967, by which time they were holed up in a house in Woodstock in upstate New York, where they'd been exploring the traditional musics of their adopted home - country, bluegrass and the blues.

Their first album Music from Big Pink was released in 1968, to a rapturous critical reception. Helm's sinuous drumming was the cynosure of The Band's sound. Ronnie Hawkins, quoted in Barney Hoskyns's wonderful book Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, put it very well: "When Robbie brought me the tape I said, Goddamn, that's country as hell, but it's funky country, I like it . . . Robbie got most of the credit but Levon was the funk in the music."

He was also its soul, a kind of guiding star for Robertson's journey into the American mythos. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", on The Band's eponymous second album, which was also their masterpiece. In this song Helm is Virgil Caine, a Confederate survivor of an attack by Union cavalry during the American Civil War. Greil Marcus wrote: "The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our old oppositions, every American still shares this event ... The song is not so much about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carried a version of that event within himself."

In the video below, The Band performs "The  Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", with Helm singing and playing drums, at their valedictory concert in November 1976, captured on film by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear